Sleep On It
By Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc
A pre—sleep routine, thorough medical check—up, and carefully chosen natural remedy can help you put an end to insomnia

woman-sleepingQ: I toss and turn all night and never seem to get enough sleep, but I don’t want to get hooked on sleeping pills. What are the best natural sleep remedies?

—Mary Anne T., Florence, AL

Humans were designed to awaken near dawn and go to sleep soon after dark. The introduction of artificial light took us away from this natural cycle, and we’ve been trying to cope ever since. Ignoring our natural sleep cycle puts the body into stress mode. Getting a “second wind” around 10 p.m. is usually a sign that your stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, have kicked in. The regular burden of these hormones shortens the life of tissues and organs—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Chronic sleep loss leads to higher risk for depression, memory problems, headaches, heart palpitations, infections, blood pressure and blood sugar irregularities, and allergic responses such as eczema.

Shockingly, 30 percent of women in the United States report that they use medication to “improve” their sleep. Of these, nearly one-third rely on over-the-counter drugs, 15 percent use prescription medications, and many take both. Don’t believe the pharmaceutical ads: Drugging yourself does not improve sleep quality.

Get Into the Rhythm

Healthy sleep takes a commitment. You really do need to allocate eight hours daily for sleep. If you get up at 6:30 a.m., put yourself to bed at 10:30 p.m. Since a pre-sleep routine is helpful, allow time for that as well. Maybe 30 minutes to wash your face, brush your teeth, stretch a little, read—and then lights out!

Beyond that, it’s important to consider possible underlying causes of your sleep issues. They could be hormonal (night sweats); nutritional (insufficient absorption of B vitamins or food irritants in the gut); pharmacological (stimulants); physiological (sleep apnea); and/or psychological (stress). If you choose to work with a natural health-care provider, consider these two goals: First, assess and treat the underlying problem/problems, and second, alleviate the immediate insomnia so that sleep restoration may begin.

To start, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I anxious?
  • Do I have stress in my life?
  • Am I consuming a lot of sugar, caffeine, and/or alcohol?
  • Do I smoke?
  • What medications am I taking?

If none of these factors apply, your insomnia may be due to low levels of melatonin, the body’s natural sleep hormone, and/or low levels of serotonin, the brain’s “feel-good” hormone. Taking melatonin, 1–3 mg at bedtime, can help, especially those who have difficulty falling asleep. For some people, taking melatonin around 4 or 5 p.m. works better than at bedtime.

If waking up during the night is a problem, and you always awaken around the same time, acupuncture may help. All of the organs rotate through 2-hour cycles, and waking between 2 and 4 a.m. often signifies “Kidney Qi” distress—which in Western terms means adrenal overdrive. Taking 50–100 mg of 5-HTP at bedtime often helps with wakefulness after the first four hours of sleep.

Best Natural Sleep Remedies

In addition to the nutrients mentioned above, there are a variety of natural sleep aids that can safely and effectively help you get a good night’s rest, including:

  • Valerian (250–500 mg): A high-quality tincture will smell like old sneakers—it’s not pleasant, but it is effective. You may prefer to take this herb in capsule form.
  • GABA (500–1,000 mg).
  • Lithium (20 mg): At low doses, it’s a mineral, not a drug.
  • Glycine (2,000 mg).
  • Magnolia (250–500 mg): Works as a muscle relaxant and anti-stress remedy.
  • Ziziphus spinosa or jujube seed (1,000 mg): An herbal sedative that has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine.
Milder plant sedatives include hops, skullcap, chamomile, lemon balm, oat straw, lavender, bitter orange, California poppy, and kava. Skullcap is especially nice for insomnia and constipation; lemon balm also boasts antiviral properties; and kava is particularly good when insomnia is exacerbated by muscle fatigue (e.g., after a strenuous day of physical work).

The 15 commandments for good sleep
Thou shalt …

  1. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  2. Ma ke sure your sleep environment is as comfortable as possible.
  3. Keep your bedroom as dark and as quiet as possible.
  4. Avoid caffeine—coffee, tea, soft drinks, or chocolate—in the evenings.
  5. Avoid alcoholic beverages or cigarettes before going to bed.
  6. Get some exercise every day— but not in the late evening.
  7. Avoid napping in the daytime.
  8. Avoid using loud alarm clocks— being awakened abruptly is shocking to the body. Try a dawn simulator if you need a tool to make sure that you wake up on time.
  9. Take a hot shower, bath, sauna, or dip in a hot tub before bed. Raising body temperature slightly in the evening helps to induce sleep.
  10. Consider wearing socks to bed—feet often have poor circulation and get cold. Studies have shown that wearing socks to bed reduces nighttime awakenings.
  11. Develop a sleep ritual—a nightly routine that eases you down from the day’s activities.
  12. Use your bedroom for sleeping instead of working, worrying, or watching TV.
  13. Get out of bed and do something relaxing, such as reading a novel or stretching, if you can’t sleep.
  14. Check your bedroom for electromagnetic (EMF) levels—gauss meters are widely available. EMFs disrupt the pineal gland. Don’t have anything plugged in within 3–5 feet of your head during sleep.
  15. Lose weight if you need to. Being overweight significantly increases sleep apnea.

Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc, has a private naturopathic practice in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two books on health, including Managing Menopause Naturally. Visit her online at

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